Our mission at CIRM is to accelerate stem treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. But what if those needs are not just unmet, they’re also unknown? What happens when those developing treatments never even bother to ask those they are trying to help if this is what they really need, or want?
The question came up during a panel discussion at a meeting of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network in San Diego earlier this month. David Higgins, a CIRM Board member and a Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s disease, highlighted the problem saying that if you ask most people what they think is the biggest problem for Parkinson’s sufferers, they would probably say the movement disorders such as tremors and muscle rigidity. But David said that if you ask people who have Parkinson’s what their biggest problems are, then movement disorder probably wouldn’t even come in the top five concerns that they really have.
David listed insomnia, severe fatigue, anxiety, and depression as far more pressing and important:
“Researchers study what they know and they look to solve the things they think they can solve, and it is sometimes very different than the things that patients would like them to solve to ease their concerns.”
That sparked a fascinating discussion about the gap between what researchers and scientists sometimes think they should be doing, the kinds of treatments they should be trying to develop, and what the people who have those conditions really want.
David Parry, who is with GlaxoSmithKline and worked in drug development and discovery for most of his career, said:
“If I told you how many times I sat in meetings with my medical discovery group and talked about what our targets should be then we’d be here all night. We focus on what we know, what we think we can fix and what will work, when maybe we need to be more mindful of what could really make a difference in the life of patients.”
Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network panel discussion: Left David Higgins, David Parry, Catriona Jamieson, John Zaia, John Adams
Clearly there is a gap between what we think we can fix and what we should try and fix, and the best way to close that gap is to have a conversation.
Patients and Patient Advocates need to speak up and tell researchers what their main concerns and problems are, to help the scientists understand that while they would dearly love something that saves their life, they would also appreciate something that helps improve the quality of their lives.
Researchers too need to take a step back and not just get caught up in the search for an answer to a scientific or medical puzzle, without first asking “is this a puzzle that people want solved?”
At CIRM we work hard to make sure the voices of the patients and Patient Advocates are heard at every level of the work we do; from deciding what to fund to how to design a clinical trial involving our funding. But clearly it’s important that those voices be heard at a much earlier stage, to help shape the direction the research takes long before it comes to us for funding.
Breaking down barriers
For too long there has been a communications barrier between researchers and patients. This is not something that was deliberately constructed, it is something that simply evolved over time. Now it’s time to break down that barrier, and make sure both groups are talking to each other.
When it comes to developing treatments for deadly diseases and disorders, patients and researchers should think of themselves as partners. Researchers put their minds to work developing these treatments. Patients put their bodies on the line testing them.
Without the research there is no hope. Without the patients there is no proof. So, let’s start talking to each other.
If you have any thoughts or suggestions on how we can get this conversation started we would love to hear from you.